So, straight talk: I take detailed notes with me up to the podium when I teach a Bible class. But, I also sometimes fail to look at those notes very closely when I get on a roll. I never like “reading” my class. I try to know my material well enough that I can just say what I need to say. I don’t like keeping my head down and staring at my papers. Sometimes though, when you’re dealing with a subject as perilous to expositors as Revelation, it’s important to use your notes a little more than usual. That I didn’t last night led to a blunder that shook me off my game for the rest of the class.
The blunder in question revolved around this verse…
Rev 9:4 And it was commanded them that they should not hurt the grass of the earth, neither any green thing, neither any tree; but only those men which have not the seal of God in their foreheads.
Reading too fast last night, I missed that John says the enemy would only hurt those that do NOT have the seal of God in their foreheads. Instead I said the enemy would hurt those who DO have the seal of God. I then went off on an extemporaneous tangent about Christian persecution and what not, none of which had anything to do with the text in question, which clearly talks about the enemies of God being hurt, not the people of God.
So, with that blunder beside me, I think it’s important for the class to know what I think this verse actually says, since I failed to properly teach it last night.
If there was any debate as to whether or not the Devil truly has limitations put on his power, this verse settles it. John writes that it was commanded of “them” (the swarm of locusts, previously mentioned) that they should not hurt the plants and vegetation of the earth, but only the people. And even then, there’s a limitation on the kind of people that can be hurt: Only those who do not have the “seal of God in their foreheads” are permitted to be targeted by this symbolic swarm of locusts.
A “seal” is a signet that shows ownership. We are owned by Jesus, having been bought with His blood. This seal is “in” our foreheads. It’s not “on” our foreheads, like a tattoo, but it’s “in” our foreheads: It’s in our hearts and minds. We are—soul, mind and body—owned by Jesus.
So, putting the picture of the previous verses together, it seems that the Devil is allowed by God the authority to unleash his evil and suffering on the world, but only on those who are not faithful to God. Obviously then, we’re dealing with a particular situation, and not the work of Satan in general. Obviously the Devil has and does attack God’s people, but this is a specific calamity that John is writing about.
To understand this text, let’s remember its figurative nature. Even something like the word “hurt” should be read figuratively, since Jesus has already used the word to describe death (ch2:11). John also will confirm, in the next verse, that “hurt” is used to mean “kill” in this context.
So who is being hurt? Those who are not faithful. Recall that earlier in the text, John had written about those (including Christians) who worshipped Caesar (ch8:11). Now we have a picture of judgment coming against Rome and evil coming to hurt evil people. I don’t think it’s a stretch to connect the dots and say that the downfall of Rome will be the death, not only of pagan Romans, but of fallen-away Christians who chose temporary life over eternal promises.
That, I think, is the meaning of the verse here.
But, to look at this from a big picture standpoint: Let’s remember that, if God is limiting things to a punishment against non (faithful) Christians, then we can also say that God is sparing faithful Christians from this punishment, specifically death. It’s not that the Devil is forbidden from inflicting pain on God’s people; it’s that he’s disallowed from killing them (in this specific instance/context). But even then, you have to remember, in the big picture, the figurative nature at work in this writing; of course the Devil has killed God’s people, but what the Devil won’t be allowed to do is kill all of Christianity. He won’t end the kingdom of God’s people. That Kingdom is forever (Daniel 2:44).
Sorry I didn’t communicate that effectively last night!